Celebrating the rainbow brigade – 8 influential works on the LGBT community.


It has for long been assumed all over the world that men and women are assigned specific sexual roles that they must adhere to strictly, deviance from which can only harm the deviants. In economic terms, it can be explained as leaving a cartel.

Pansie, fag, faggot and even ‘Bulgarians’ are terms that have been used to describe the LGBT community. What people seem to be unable to grasp is that you cannot choose who you are or with whom to fall in love with.

While alternate sexual preferences started appearing in works from the 1920’s, rarely have their overtly obvious preferences been recognized till today.

Willella Waldorf’s review of New York Post, September 17, 1937 about the play “Wise Tomorrow” factually reinforces my stand.

“It has been whispered the theme has a touch of Lesbianism about it, which sounds a little odd when you consider that the Warners, presumably, have in mind a picture version eventually.  However, as Samual Goldwyn or somebody once said, “We can always call them Bulgarians.”

The State of New York, in fact, passed a law in 1927 that did not allow the public performance of plays that contained overtly gay and/or lesbian characters. This in effect outlawed even the visual appreciation of characters that may be of an alternate sexual preference. At the time, recognising the third gender, or even legalizing same sex marriages was probably inconceivable.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s safe to say that we live in “enlightened times”. The United States of America has legalized same sex marriages, marked by celebrations and gatherings the world over. We, at Random House India, have decided to celebrate these events through this blog that makes a daring effort at recognizing the contributions made by certain iconic works.

 Gaysia – Benjamin Law:

In this thoroughly entertaining novel, Benjamin Law recounts his journey from his homeland of Australia across the Asian continent in search of people’s views on homosexuality.

Image Source : awordbythewayside.wordpress.com

The author bares all his beliefs and abandons all of his preconceptions to immerse himself fully in the journey he takes on Asia where he encounters from drag queens in Tokyo, lady-boy beauty pageant contestants in Thailand to a Yoga Guru in India who claims he can cure gay people of their “disease”.

A humorous, nevertheless well-researched piece of journalism, it exposes the readers to the irrational and insular mentality of a large section of people in the largest continent in the world.

“A book of powerful, enlightening stories on a fraught topic, told with care, empathy, grace and good humour.”

-The Australian

Tipping the velvet – Sarah Waters:

In her debut novel, Sarah Waters focuses heavily on an underlying lesbian theme, which some say she draws from her own life.

Image Source: wikipedia.org

Set during the reign of King George VII, the book follows the experiences of 18-year-old Nan Astley in her lesbian travails across Victorian London. She first meets drag performer Kitty and forms a sexual relationship with her, with both performing alongside on stage in due time. Kitty however, is in constant denial of her sexuality. She in turn sleeps with a man, and Nan finds out. The 18-year-old resorts to prostituting herself out, wearing male clothes left over from her performances. This is when she becomes the personal harlot for Dana who is part of a group of upper class lesbians who cannot afford to be found out for fear of being shunned. When this relationship sours, she starts living with Florence who is a socialist and coincidentally also a lesbian. In due time, they become involved romantically and she finally finds true love.

A tale of betrayal, deceit and ultimately love, it is an enjoyable and full-blooded romp. Interestingly enough, while some try to find hidden meanings in the text, the book is as obvious as its name which is Victorian slang for a sexual position.

 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Tennessee Williams

The Southern playwright explores, over the course of one evening, the latent homosexuality that hides beneath the surface of society.

Image Source – Penguin Books

The play by Tennessee Williams follows as events in a turbulent household unfold over the course of an evening. One of the main characters in the play– Brick is a closet homosexual. He goes into a deep depression when his best friend Skipper dies. Brick’s wife is suspicious of this relationship. She confronts Skipper before his death, with regard to this, in order to prove her wrong he tries to sleep with her. This is when he suffers from impotence. Two of the principle characters in the play exhibit quasi-gay characteristics.

“I’m not living with you. We occupy the same cage.”

Playwright Tennessee Williams’ contribution has to be viewed in the homophobic context in which he wrote. This was the time of Senator McCarthy who dubbed homosexuals in the United States as “security risks”. The American Psychiatrics Association only removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1971. In this light, Tennessee Williams was a traitor with a mental disorder.

‘Cat On a Hot Tin Roof’, is thus a revolutionary work as it tried to bring the topic “out-of-the-closet”. The Pulitzer Prize winning novel brings out in the open the not so latent homophobia in society at large. The writer puts forward the point, albeit latently, that this invariably leads to depression and self-loathing.

The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story – Revathi

 As a hijra I get pushed to the fringes of society. Yet I have dared to share my innermost life with you about being a hijra and also doing sex work.”

Dignity is a term that is difficult to comprehend when you are viewed as hijra community is. Societal oppression, however, is one term that they are only too familiar with. In this autobiographical account, Revathi recounts her experiences of what life has been like for her as a member of India’s marginalized transgender community.

Image Source – Penguin India

Men and even women stared at us and laughed, and heckled us. I realized what a burden a hijras daily life is.”

At times disturbing, and others just depressing, this work offers a deep understanding of their lives, traditions and the psychological torture they face. On reading, one realizes the everyday bravery of this section of society that is feared by some, and loathed by others. What the problem we understood, after going through the book is that people only fear them, because they fail to understand them. At this juncture, we are being forced to quote Carmine Falcone from Batman, “You always fear what you don’t understand”.

In light of recent developments, this work is of critical importance. Only in 2014 did India officially recognize transgender as a distinct gender. While this may seem like a positive development, we must in this case look at the glass as half empty. 67 years after independence, a country has negated the existence of a community whose numbers are in the millions. The government had denied them rights and a means to earn a livelihood. We could continue our rant about how life is unfair, but it is only through the eyes of the aggrieved that we understand the truth. This is precisely what this work presents.

 Funny Boy – Shyam Selvadurai

Shyam Selvadurai describes in the work the experience of growing up gay in war torn Sri Lanka, drawn partly from his own experiences.

Image Source – Penguin India

“I’m gay, the character in the book is gay. I’m Sri Lankan Tamil, the character in the book is Sri Lankan Tamil. We came to Canada, they came to Canada”.
Shyam Selvadurai in an interview for India Currents Magazine.

In six separate but interlinked stories, the narrator Arjie comes to find his first experiences with homosexuality. This is best expressed when he prefers dressing up in saris and playing with girls to cricket. Therein, he is forced by his family to conform to the hetero-normative nature of South Asian society, to prevent becoming a “funny boy.” He however, rebels. Later critics have pointed out that this rebellion is inherently linked to the sense of hurt and injustice that he felt.

Set in the context of the war between the Ultra-Right wing radical Sinhalese and the Tamils in Northern Sri Lanka, Selvadurai links the continuing colonial mindset in former colonies to the rejection of homosexuality in society. Sri Lankan writer and critic Prakrti elaborates on this link, which we found to be most interesting: –

“As he grows from childhood into adolescence while simultaneously struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality, demystifies the oppressively-rigid typecasts or straight jackets that boys and men are forced to ‘fit into’ especially within the colonial-type schools in present-day Sri Lanka”

Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin

 “This time when I touched him something happened in him and in me which made this touch different from any touch either of us had ever known.”

Image Source – Penguin Books

 The novel by James Baldwin focuses on the conflicting thoughts in the minds of gay men due to their social unacceptability in the minds of the largely intolerant society.

Though the protagonist David is clearly gay from a young age when he mounts Joey, he is constantly in denial. This follows till the very end where he abandons Giovanni whom he loves to adhere to societal norms and get married to a woman. He is left ridden with guilt at the end because of his decision.

At the time the book was published, the author had just ended a relationship with another man Lucien who had married a woman. Thus a lot of the elements in the story are of an autobiographical nature.

At the time it came out in the 1950’s, the novel was highly controversial not only due to the fact that it was based on the taboo of homosexuality but because it was written by a black man. His publisher recommended that Baldwin burn the book as it would enrage conservative readers in the USA. Today, it is considered a masterpiece.

The Golden Gate – Vikram Seth

“In life’s brief game to be a winner
A man must have…oh yes, above
All else, of course, someone to love.” 

Image Source: wikipedia.com

Vikram Seth’s bestseller deals with the homosexuality, bisexuality, and the social stigmas attached to both among a host of other diverse topics from love to nuclear weapons.

Set in the California of the 80’s and focuses on the lives of five people in their twenties, the main homosexual elements in the book follow Ed and Phil. They engage in homosexual acts while drunk, and soon begin a relationship. However, they both want something different from the relationship. While Ed finds Phil’s personality attractive, the converse is true the other way around. They both break up, and Phil later gets married to another character- Liz after they discover a coincidence of wants.

The Sahitya Akademi Award winning book did not go down well with readers in India, who felt it was promoting and spreading unwelcome ideas. Roweena Hill echoes these ideas in her review of the book.

It is hard to see how Vikram Seth can be considered an Indian writer, except by accident of birth.”

Western critics on the other hand, had opinions opposed to those back in the writers place of birth.

“Seth makes us care about his characters, proposes a moral criticism of their lives and captures his California setting with a joyous wit little seen in narrative poetry this side of Lord Byron.”

-David Lehman

The Pregnant King – Devdutt Pattnaik

 This imaginative tale by Devdutt Pattnaik is set in the times of the Mahabharata. It follows a king who gets pregnant after drinking a potion meant for his wife by accident. The novel tacitly deals with gender issues.

Image Source – Penguin India

The king finds himself in a dilemma. Dharma as is best described as “duty” and in daily life, it is the job of the king to maintain it in society. As and when the king fails to do so, the “law of the fishes” prevails where the bigger fish eats the smaller fish. Pattnaik here casually criticizes the whole ancient Indian concept of dharma for disregarding the entire role of the third gender, as well as relegating women to servitude in daily life.

“I am not sure that I am a man…I have created life outside me as men do. But I have also created life inside me, as women do. What does that make me? “

 The king also yearns to be loved, as a mother, but the unbending rules of society “dharma” does not allow him to do so. Delving deeper in to this subject, it can easily be identified that the author intends to criticize even modern Indian society, which unconsciously governs itself on the basis of such strict adherence. The corruption of the same dharma which has relegated women to an inferior level, and demolished the third gender altogether.

While the story is present in the Indian epics, Pattnaik has woven it in the timeframe so as to make it relevant to the Mahabharata. It generated much acclaim in the Indian subcontinent.

This story about the imperfection of the human conditions, and our stubborn refusal to make room for those in between is a cautionary tale for out own times”

-Jai Arjun Singh in Tehelka



The Penguin India Blog

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